YOUR NOTES taken in the field are ultimately designed to inspire, structure and support work that goes down on paper. You must go through the process of translating a mass of oral conversations, visual and other observations, and abstract thoughts into a readable text. That is one of the most challenging aspects of our work.
But fear not. It can be done in relatively straightforward ways. The harder it seems, the easier it will become by adopting the following step-by-step methodology. It’s time consuming, but infinitely less so than staring at notes, prevaricating, writing and tossing bits of text, seeking refuge in Facebook and finally developing writer’s block.
A first step is to collect all relevant material in one place. For example, useful interview transcripts can be copied into one folder, along with personal thoughts, press clippings, academic articles and the like. Make sure they are titled (even tagged) in ways that make them possible to navigate at a glance. Physical, analog material such as books, pamphlets or handwritten notes should also be consolidated in one place.
Second, go through that material once more, all together – once is enough. Take notes on what it evokes as you do. See what connections your brain makes and keep track of them. Also discuss that raw material with others, and be sure to write down any outcomes. Don’t try to memorize it. Don’t sit and stare either, hoping the material will somehow start moving around and organize itself.
On the contrary, you need to assimilate it, to process it, to “digest” it. Digestion entails breaking things up into their constituent components, sifting some out, and then reassembling the remainder into something else. Much is lost and forgotten. But the “nutrients” are saved. In this case, the nutrients are the bits and pieces of observations that you have been using to develop fragments of analysis, which in turn are the building blocks of your narration. In other words, let the material sink in.
The third stage consists in deciding how you are going to reorganize the material. This “order” is, in practice, an outline. Bear in mind that there usually are numerous possibilities, several of which may work. It’s a matter of trying them out – like a child would toy with putting blue squares with red squares, or orange rectangles with similarly-colored shapes.
In your written products, the “organizing” factors can be brought down to simple questions: Why is my research important to my target audience? How best can I convey my most relevant findings, given the audience’s starting point? What will the audience need, in terms of background, illustrations, nuance and supporting evidence, to follow my argument and be convinced by it? Where exactly do I want to take and leave them?
Answering these questions will help you understand the outline as an itinerary. You start where your audience is. And, indeed, they haven’t done your fieldwork. You end where you are, having done all that work yourself. First you need to grab your audience, by showing them why the journey they are about to set upon is meaningful to them – that’s an introduction. Then you walk them through your analysis, step by step. In a conclusion, you explain why this is the logical end of the trip.
An outline must always be discussed with others. A good outline gives your manager, your colleague or anyone else a good idea of where you intend to go, and why that path is a good one. It is like a map: you’re not on the scenic route yet, but you can see that the road doesn’t fall off a cliff, and actually takes you from A to B.
Once you are comfortable with your outline, the fourth stage is not about drafting, but redistributing your material into its various sections. Each is a box that will contain the fragments of analysis and the bits and pieces of observations mentioned above. Different parts of the same interview can land into any number of different boxes. Now you are physically gathering your material as if it was blue squares or orange triangles.
The fifth and last step consists in drafting. Again, this has little to do with inspiration. Many writers have rituals that help, but the key is putting in the hours. Writing takes time. It’s never quite as good as we’d like. So it takes even more time to review, improve and so on. That said, don’t even try to write 12 hours in a row. A reasonably good text will come, say, two hours at a time, interspaced with real breaks.
Focus for that long and keep moving: unless you’re an experienced and confident writer, never look back on what you wrote the same day. Put differently, detach the writing process from the re-reading / editing / panicking process, which need their own, very separate moments.
It is important to note that the process of analysis and writing will vary between different sorts of outputs. A memo or briefing is not great literature—the point is being systematic, not stylish. Each subsection in your outline must contain the same core elements, each of which is critical to your audience’s ability to follow: 1) The analytical argument you are making, and which justifies this subsection. 2) The background that is needed to understand the argument. 3) The color that is required to “experience” it. And 4) the necessary nuance and supporting hard evidence that will make it compelling.
Write in small paragraphs and tick all the above boxes. Constantly ask yourself: Why is this important? What is missing? And where do I go from here? Once you have answered these questions in your text, you can move on to the next subsection. And from subsection to subsection, soon you will have your brief or your memo!
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Illustration credit: Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.